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Brandon Robshaw on John Masefield The Box of Delights, Slightly Foxed 75

Masefield’s Magic

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I was 8 when I first read John Masefield’s The Box of Delights – in the late 1960s, in the high-ceilinged classroom of a Victorian-built school in East London. I had not long been reading ‘chapter books’ as we called them, and this was the longest, most challenging and most sophisticated one I had yet encountered – and by far the most rewarding. It’s not easy to convey the peculiar atmosphere of it: scary but funny; fantastical but believable; lyrical yet down-to-earth; grotesque, even nightmarish in parts, yet told in a friendly voice. Years later, when I had forgotten most of the details of the actual story and characters, the feeling of it remained with me, like the lingering memory of a dream.

The Box of Delights was written around the mid-point of Masefield’s career, when he had been Poet Laureate for five years. It’s actually a sequel to his earlier children’s novel, The Midnight Folk (1927: see SF no.73), and features many of the same characters. Those who don’t know these books will probably be familiar with his poems, such as the much-anthologized ‘Sea Fever’ (‘I must go down to the seas again/ To the lonely sea and the sky . . .’) and ‘Cargoes’ (‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir/ Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine . . .’). The Box of Delights features that same lyricism and energy. Masefield himself led an adventurous life: he ran away to sea while still a teenager and sailed all over the world; like the supertramp W. H. Davies he lived for a while as a vagrant in America, travelling and doing odd jobs; he was a medical orderly in France

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I was 8 when I first read John Masefield’s The Box of Delights – in the late 1960s, in the high-ceilinged classroom of a Victorian-built school in East London. I had not long been reading ‘chapter books’ as we called them, and this was the longest, most challenging and most sophisticated one I had yet encountered – and by far the most rewarding. It’s not easy to convey the peculiar atmosphere of it: scary but funny; fantastical but believable; lyrical yet down-to-earth; grotesque, even nightmarish in parts, yet told in a friendly voice. Years later, when I had forgotten most of the details of the actual story and characters, the feeling of it remained with me, like the lingering memory of a dream.

The Box of Delights was written around the mid-point of Masefield’s career, when he had been Poet Laureate for five years. It’s actually a sequel to his earlier children’s novel, The Midnight Folk (1927: see SF no.73), and features many of the same characters. Those who don’t know these books will probably be familiar with his poems, such as the much-anthologized ‘Sea Fever’ (‘I must go down to the seas again/ To the lonely sea and the sky . . .’) and ‘Cargoes’ (‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir/ Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine . . .’). The Box of Delights features that same lyricism and energy. Masefield himself led an adventurous life: he ran away to sea while still a teenager and sailed all over the world; like the supertramp W. H. Davies he lived for a while as a vagrant in America, travelling and doing odd jobs; he was a medical orderly in France during the Great War; and after he had settled down with wife and children in England he led an active public life, lecturing, writing prolifically, founding the Scottish Association for the Speaking of Verse (although he was not Scottish) and taking his duties as Poet Laureate very seriously. This spirit of adventure, this restless desire to be always moving, comes through strongly in The Box of Delights, where the scene changes with dizzying rapidity and ranges through space and time. The plot follows a dreamlike logic of its own. Young Kay Harker makes the acquaintance of a mysterious old Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings, who performs tricks of real magic and repeatedly warns Kay that ‘the Wolves are Running’. To preserve his Box of Delights from falling into the hands of the Wolves, Hawlings entrusts it to Kay. The Wolves – that is to say the evil Abner Brown, his witch wife Sylvia Pouncer and a collection of thuggish henchmen, including a disreputable Rat – spare no effort to find the box, kidnapping half of the town including all the clergymen (the Wolves want to prevent Christmas being celebrated), but they can’t catch Kay, whose magic box enables him to Go Small, Go Swift and travel into the past. But the enchanting thing about the book is not its plot but its atmosphere of magic and strangeness. It is a winter novel and most scenes are set in a snowbound landscape under a dark sky; yet because the box enables travel to other climes and times, there are frequent abrupt changes of scene, brought to life through Masefield’s lyrical use of language. On page after page there are vivid images which lodge in one’s mind like lines of poetry: ‘a great man, antlered at the brow, dressed in deerskin and moving with the silent, slow grace of a stag’; ‘The water in the bay was of the most vivid, pure green, so curiously clear that far, far below he could see shark after shark, all spotted, spangled and striped’; ‘the sweet banging of a gong’; and, of course, ‘the Wolves are Running’. The gallery of characters adds to this sense of surreal strangeness. With the exception of Kay himself, who is something of a blank slate, they are all larger and weirder than life. Cole Hawlings, a brighteyed, stooped old man with his Punch and Judy show strapped to his back, accompanied by his prancing dog Toby, is hundreds of years old and his memory stretches back a long way:
First there were pagan times; then there were in-between times; then there were Christian times; then there was another in between time; then there was Oliver’s time; and then there was pudding-time; but there’ve been a lot more since then and more coming: but the time I liked best was just before the in-between time, what you might call Henry’s time.
Hawlings (who is later identified as the medieval Spanish mystic, theologian and poet Ramón Lully) can conjure up a phoenix, produce forests and birds and bees and butterflies out of nowhere, and make drawings come to life. Then there is Little Maria, Kay’s cousin, a wild lawless imp of a girl in the Minnie-the-Minx mould who, before retiring, makes sure to slip some sprigs of holly into her sister’s bed. When Kay hears she is coming for Christmas his reaction is: ‘I do hope she has brought some pistols. She generally has one or two.’ Later, Maria gets scrobbled (a lot of scrobbling goes on in the novel; it means being kidnapped, with a suggestion of comic violence). After she manages to escape, she describes her experience in these terms: ‘I’ve been scrobbled like a greenhorn. I knew what it would be, not taking a pistol. Well, I pity them if I ever get near them again. They won’t scrobble Maria Jones a second time.’ Abner Brown is the mastermind behind the scrobbling; a silky voiced jewel-thief and gangster who poses as a clergyman, Dr Boddledale, and plans to double-cross all his hench people, including his wife (who also plans to double-cross him). Alongside all these realist or quasi-realist figures there are mythical characters like Herne the Hunter, who takes Kay on a journey into the wild wood, where he transforms him successively into a stag, a duck and a fish. The novel is a curious mix of the magical and the mundane. Fantasy stories are typically set in a pre-industrial world, but the world of The Box of Delights contains trains, telephones, telegrams and aeroplanes as well as spells and shape-shifting. Each chapter is topped and tailed by an illustration, executed in a simple cartoon style but representing surreal images, such as a rat brandishing a sword or a dancing cake-stand – as if Salvador Dalí had been commissioned to produce an issue of the Beano. The prose is enlivened by bursts of verse: one snatch that has stayed with me all these years is Arnold of Todi’s poem about the sky, written when he was a soldier in the army of Alexander the Great: ‘It arched, it arched/ We marched, we marched/ And parched and parched’. (Arnold of Todi, I should explain, is the original maker of the box, but is lost in the past; Kay visits him at the time of the Trojan War.) It is perhaps becoming evident that this is not the sort of novel that can easily be summarized: there are too many disparate elements, too much going on. Yet it all feels as if it belongs together; everything coheres, as in a dream which makes no sense when one recounts it but makes perfect sense when one is dreaming it. The influence of The Box of Delights is discernible in many other classics of children’s literature. The shape-shifting scenes of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone are clearly inspired by Kay’s transformations into stag, duck and fish. Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising features a similar sense of menace and the use of time travel, and an appearance by Herne the Hunter; and even the title feels like a nod to ‘The Wolves are Running’. And I have always believed that Tove Jansson’s Little My owes a good deal to Masefield’s Little Maria. Like all the best children’s books, The Box of Delights triumphantly survives the passage into adulthood. I rediscovered it some years ago when reading it as a bedtime story to my 8-year-old daughter and was as enchanted by it as she was. And that is probably the best way to discover or rediscover it. Read it to a child. Christmastime would be best.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 75 © Brandon Robshaw 2022


About the contributor

Brandon Robshaw lectures in Children’s Literature, Creative Writing and Philosophy for the Open University. He has written a Young Adult fantasy novel, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers, and a collection of children’s poems, These Are a Few of My Scariest Things.

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